JERUSALEM: Unrest at a highly sensitive Jerusalem holy site led Israeli police to shut off access to it yesterday after several weeks of tension at the location. Police said they evacuated the Al-Aqsa mosque compound after a Molotov cocktail damaged a police post. Video spread online of scuffles between police and Palestinians before the site was cleared. More than 10 people were arrested, police said, while the Palestinian Red Crescent reported two people hurt. A police officer suffered from smoke inhalation, police said. Police said they found a number of firecrackers and Molotov cocktails in searches of the site.
Residents said police were also restricting Palestinian access to Jerusalem’s Old City, where the site is located. Worshippers later prayed outside the locked gates of the site in protest. Jordan, the custodian of the site, condemned its closure as “unacceptable”. Abdul Nasser Abul Al-Basal, Jordanian minister of Islamic affairs, told state-run Al-Mamlaka TV that the closure was an “attack on religious freedom”.
The compound is the third-holiest site in Islam and a focus of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. It is also the location of Judaism’s most sacred spot, revered as the site of the two biblical-era Jewish temples. Jews are allowed to visit but cannot pray there and it is a frequent scene of tension. It is located in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognized by the international community.
Recent weeks have seen scuffles over a side building at the site known as the Golden Gate. Palestinian worshippers have been entering the site despite an Israeli order that it should stay closed. Access to the Golden Gate was closed in 2003 during the second Palestinian intifada over alleged militant activity there, police say. Palestinian officials argue that the organization that prompted the ban no longer exists and there is no reason for it to remain closed.
Israel and Jordan are believed to be holding discussions to resolve the issue. Police have filed a request with Israeli courts for an order to re-close the building, but the court has reportedly delayed any decision to allow for more negotiations. There are concerns in Israel that tensions at the site could boil over and become a political issue ahead of April 9 Israeli elections. – AFP